Friday, November 8, 2013

Youth in San Francisco's Chinatown transform historic alleyways

Youth lead a tour through San Francisco's Chinatown
Step off the main roads of San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood and you’ll find yourself in a labyrinth of alleyways.  At each turn there is history: opium dens, a barbershop where Frank Sinatra used to get the perfect cut and thousands of other, untold stories from one of America’s oldest ethnic villages.  You’ll also see something you wouldn’t expect: teenagers leading tours with expert proficiency, sharing their story of how they cleaned up these neglected public spaces.

Back in 1991, Norman Fong, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (which is celebrating its fifth year as a NeighborWorks network member), reached out
to local youth and asked them how they could help the community.  Their response was simple: Clean up the local alleyways that had been neglected by both the city and the community.  Chinatown’s historic alleyways are not considered public infrastructure, so the city would not take responsibility for their care; over time, they began to overflow with refuse and waste from the restaurants and businesses that filled the area.  Since traditional open space is limited, these students immediately saw an opportunity to improve the lives of their fellow citizens and went to work.

Students clean the alleyways. (Photo
by James Ng)
Fong’s inaugural group of eight Galloway High School students in the “Adopt-An-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project”  started by grading the alleyways just as they were in school, with marks of A, B, C, D or F.  They worked to have a local newspaper publish the grades, alerting the public to the dire state of their own space.   Then they got to work: washing walls and roads and sweeping away dirt and debris. Soon the community took notice.  Individuals began walking the alleyways again and local restaurants that had been dumping oil and refuse into the alleys began to take care of their waste properly.

A few years later, Fong set up a meeting at the city’s department of public works bureau of street use and mapping to discuss the alleyways.  Although the city had spent the previous several decades dodging the work of cleaning these alleys, the amazing progress of the students could not be ignored. The city commissioned its own master plan allowing the students an opportunity to expand their work and partner with the local government. Jointly, Chinatown CDC and the student volunteers worked to develop a master plan for the city’s entire network of 41 alleyways, describing the current state and the work needed to make them a place the community could use again.  They went door to door visiting with local businesses and residents to make the case for their plan, and in 1998 the city adopted the guidelines authored by students.

Murals now beautify many of the alleyways.
The students’ master plan went beyond cleaning the alleyways to include initiatives to reduce illegal parking, improve pedestrian safety and access for the disabled, add green features and include more beautification efforts like murals.  Since adoption of the plan, five phases featuring the renovation of 11 alleyways have been completed.  The public space transformed by the work of these youth benefits the community overall, including more commerce for local businesses that rely on the millions of tourists who visit each year.

Beyond their work creating clean and safe public spaces the youths have also started a small business that leads tours of the alleys.

Fong believes that the youth of a community are more than the future, but also very much the present. “The youth know what needs to be done like everyone else, but they took on the responsibility to do it and the results speak for themselves,” he says.

Written by Jason Powers, national public affairs and communications adviser for NeighborWorks America.